Gary Snyder & Robert Creeley Foundation Award

Gary Snyder, Kyoto, Japan, June 1963. Photo: Allen Ginsberg c. Allen Ginsberg LLC

An article with interview snippets in the Milford Daily News in advance of Snyder receiving the 10th annual Robert Creeley Award in Acton Mass. next week. Our colleague Matt Theado at the Beat Studies Association heard from Chris Bergeron after his interview with Snyder saying “I interviewed him for about 40 minutes by phone & felt I’d never spoken with a 79-year-old man whose mind was as sharp as someone in their 30s. He was very sharp, personable, totally free of BS. What felt curious to me was unlike all the American Buddhist Lites I’ve known, there was such absolute but unforced conviction, it was like dealing with a new species.”

Bergeron’s article may be read here

Like the man himself, Gary Snyder’s poems speak with the keenness of a knife blade and the knottiness of a Zen riddle.

In poems written over the last 60 years, he might channel a magpie’s rhyming call, drink double shots of bourbon in a cowboy bar or translate the Chinese hermit poet called Cold Mountain.

Raised in the Pacific Northwest and a longtime California resident, Snyder will head east to Acton next week to receive the 10th annual Robert Creeley Award.

On Tuesday, March 16, at 7:30 p.m., Snyder will read his poems in the Acton-Boxborough Regional High School auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.

He called Creeley a poet he “learned from (with) a significant and unique way of using the English and American language.”

“I knew Robert Creeley’s work and I knew Creeley the man for a while. So I’m very pleased to come because I think of Robert as an old friend,” he said in a phone interview from California. “For people of my generation…Robert was a very important figure we were quite aware of. He was one of the people whose works we followed through the years to see what he was doing and what he was coming up with next.”

The award is given annually by the nonprofit Robert Creeley Foundation to honor the Acton-raised poet and teacher who wrote 60 volumes of innovative poetry until his death in 2004.

Robert Clawson, a founding member who serves on the nominating committee, said Snyder’s visit presents “a real opportunity for people to hear a legendary poet.”

“We think it’s a real coup. Gary Snyder has not appeared much in the East. We’re just delighted,” he said. “His decision to come is a real high point for (the foundation’s) 10th anniversary. It gives us lots of confidence about what we’ve been doing.”

Born in May 1930, Snyder has created a remarkably varied body of work as a poet, essayist, environmental activist and translator of Japanese and Chinese verse.

An outdoorsman and Buddhist, he has written nearly 20 volumes of poetry in a distinctive voice that fuses Robinson Jeffers’ passion for the natural world with William Blake’s belief in its imminent spirituality.

In 1974, Snyder won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for “Turtle Island,” a collection of poems that synthesized American Indian myths, Buddhist philosophy and environmental concerns to forge new ways for people to live harmoniously on the Earth.

Snyder said he began writing poetry at 15 when he started climbing “big snow peaks” while living with his mother and sister outside of Portland, Ore. “I only wrote poetry in those days because I couldn’t find any other way to write what was happening in my mind or feelings in regards to the mountains,” he said. “It was a search for a form and a language that I felt would do justice to what I was trying to say.”

Asked about early poetic influences, Snyder recalled reading Jeffers and D.H. Lawrence’s “Birds, Beasts and Flowers” as a teenager in Portland’s public library.

Rather than imbuing mountains with spiritual qualities, Snyder said his earliest mountaineering poems, many of which remain unpublished, “were an exercise in trying to represent the starkness, inhumaneness and absence of feeling comfort” that he felt on the snowy peaks.

After graduating from Reed College in 1951 with dual degrees in literature and anthropology, Snyder immersed himself in non-academic pursuits that fed his interests in the wilderness, Native American spirituality and East Asian painting and religion. He worked as a merchant seaman, a logger and fire lookout in the North Cascade mountains in Washington.

After studying Zen Buddhism and Asian culture at University of California, Berkley, Snyder spent several years in Japan immersing himself in language study, Zen practice and other aspects of its culture.

Snyder practices a school of Buddhism known as Rinzai Zen in Japan and Linji in China which stresses the possibility of “sudden enlightenment” after years of rigorous discipline.

He cautioned that enlightenment rarely comes suddenly.

“Any notions you have about enlightenment are completely false. That’s just another human idea,” said Snyder, laughing. “When my teacher shaved my head, he said even Buddha Shakyamuni is still meditating, still practicing, still working on himself somewhere in the universe.”

While growing numbers of Americans are studying Buddhism, Snyder said it would be misleading to “compare it with the artistic and poetic traditions” that have made some other non-Western religions popular.

“Buddhism goes straight to the nature of consciousness itself. The main practice of Buddhism has always been reflection, contemplation and meditation with a basis in impermanence and the absence of self,” he said.

A true Buddhist practitioner must accept the “impermanence” of a constantly changing universe, the “absence of a deity” and any belief in a “substantial self” or personal soul, he said.

Snyder said, “American Buddhism has got several centuries to go yet before it gets on its feet.”

Now 79, Snyder said he thinks of his work “in three categories rather than all one category.”

“I’ve written what I think are useful and clear essays in the environmental and ecological philosophy field. And they had a good influence, in particular, my book of essays ‘Practice of the Wild.”‘

He continued, “Another would be my work as a Buddhist and that is in some of my essays, and I think some useful and almost unique perspectives. The third thing I do is as a poet. And as a poet I’m in the American language.”

Summing up, Snyder said, “There’s a literary world, an environmental world and there’s a Buddhist philosophical world which are sort of woven or braided together.”

Asked where his disparate interests came together, Snyder laughed and said, “They all come together in the mind when you meditate. That’s for sure.”

Choosing his words, he said, “It’s not enough just to know yourself.

“You have to become more aware of yourself and your context which is your world. In a sense, the world is our mind,” he said.

To illustrate his point, Snyder said when teaching workshops he’ll sometimes take people out for a walk “to make them see where the rivers and streams are flowing to and from.”

“I’ll remind them that good manners requires you to get to know the names of the plants and flowers and birds,” he said. “That’s etiquette.”

To learn about the Robert Creeley Foundation and Gary Snyder’s appearance on March 16 in Acton, visit

One comment

  1. Sonorous and lengthy, Gary Snyder read for a LONG time after receiving the Robert Creeley Award. Maybe 90 minutes. For those aficionados of the Beat World (though GS made a point of stating he was NOT a Beat), the evening was fascinating. He told one anecdote about he and Allen climbing mountains in the 1950s and he praised Allen's athleticism and fortitude, calling him a good climber and hiker.

    However, for those with only a peripheral interest in all things Beat, Snyder's reading came off as slightly self-indulgent and long winded.

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